A Metamodern Argument for Designer Babies?

designer baby

I have written a very lengthy review of The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One (Metamodern Guides), by Hanzi Freinacht. Because it is so lengthy, it will probably have very few people who read the entire thing. But an argument I made in my review of the final chapter is something interesting that I thought deserved some of its own consideration, and so this post is adapted from my review of the final two chapters in The Listening Society. Keep in mind that although it is not a necessary requirement to have read my review of all the prior chapters to understand this post, it would be helpful.

Quick Background

In The Listening Society, the authors (under the pen name Hanzi Freinacht, hereafter just Hanzi) talk about four different developmental stage theories. One is known as the Model of Hierarchical Complexity or MHC, which posits different levels of complexity at which a person can think. This is a theory in developmental psychology that says that all organisms have a level of cognition that can be described by stages.

Model of Hierarchical Complexity MHC
Stages in the Model of Hierarchical Complexity. (Source)

The other three developmental stage theories are somewhat more speculative.

One is the Symbol-Stage theory, which posits a sort of Marxian/Hegelian historical development that describes the sort of “code” by which the self, the other, and the world is understood. These Symbol-Stages are as follows:

The seven metamemes or “symbol-stages” are:

  • A – Archaic: Earliest humans and their closest relatives, Neanderthals, etc.
  • B – Animistic (or “Post”-Archaic): The magical and ritualistic thinking of tribal society.
  • C – Faustian: The mythical thinking of agricultural warrior society, Neolithic and onwards.
  • D – “Post”-Faustian: The mythic-rational, transcendental thinking of traditional, religious society.
  • E – Modern: The rational, scientific thinking of the developed world today.
  • F – “Post”-Modern: The post-rational, systemic critique of modern life and society.
  • G – “Meta”-Modern: Read this book, please.

Another is about subjective states and has to do with how the individual is currently experiencing themself and the world. These states are as follows:

Lower States:

  • 1. Hell
  • 2. Horrific (phenomenological reality breaks down)
  • 3. Tortured
  • 4. Tormented

Medium States:

  • 5. Very uneasy
  • 6. Uneasy, uncomfortable
  • 7. Somewhat uneasy, “okay”, full of small faults
  • 8. Satisfied, well
  • 9. Good, lively
  • 10. Joyous, full of light, invigorated

High states:

  • 11. Vast, grand, open
  • 12. Blissful, saintly
  • 13. Enlightened, spiritual unity

The last is depth, which is a function of how many of the above subjective states a person has experienced and how well they have integrated them into how they experience and interact with the world. Hanzi defines it like this:

Depth is a person’s intimate, embodied acquaintance with subjective states. A person’s inner depth increases through her felt, lived and intuitive knowledge of a new subjective state (lower or higher than previously experienced) – and when the intimate acquaintance of that state becomes an integrated part of her psychological constitution; a part, if you will, of her personality. [bold in original]

This has been an extremely simplified overview of the four dimensions of development that Hanzi then combines into a single scale of development called the effective value meme. If you want a deeper overview, check out my full summary and review. If you want an even deeper look, read the book.

Effective Value Memes

Effective Value Meme is effective in the sense of it being what your “Value Meme” effectively is. Think, for instance, when it’s -10° C out, but the wind is howling, so it’s effectively colder than that (the wind chill makes it effectively -20° C).

The effective value meme, which Hanzi adapts from Spiral Dynamics (although he harbors quite the disdain for its developers Don Beck and Chris Cowan as well as the way the theory was formulated). It uses colors for the different psychological / societal stages:

You can see how these have a correspondence with Hanzi’s symbol-stages, which he puts this way:

  • Archaic (corresponds to BEIGE)
  • Animistic (corresponds to PURPLE)
  • Faustian (corresponds to RED)
  • Postfaustian (corresponds to BLUE)
  • Modern (corresponds to ORANGE)
  • Postmodern (corresponds to GREEN)
  • Metamodern (corresponds to YELLOW)

Hanzi thinks that this is too simplistic because it tries to account for the four dimensions he has discussed (complexity, symbol-stage, state, and depth) with a single degree of freedom. But, using his four dimensions, instead of assigning someone an actual value meme, they are assigned an effective value meme that takes all four into account:

Development in each of the four dimensions I have presented [complexity, symbol-stage, subjective state, and depth] adds to your overall effective value meme. [bold in original]

  • Complexity, or MHC [Model of Hierarchical Complexity] stage, adds to your effective value meme because it helps you see and relate to more abstract layers of the world. Simple societies don’t require as complex thinking as larger, more complex ones (even if they of course often require you to develop more practical skills and perform more difficult tasks).
  • Having “installed” a more advanced symbol-stage, having access to a more advanced symbolic toolkit, adds to your effective value meme. This is because the later symbolic codes are developed specifically to suit the realities we face in larger and more complex societies.
  • Higher state (average, median, minimum and maximum) adds to your effective value meme because it means that you live in a lighter world, which gives you the emotional fuel to accept a more universalistic and less selfish view of society. This is necessary in larger and more complex societies.
  • Greater depth adds to your effective value meme, because it makes you relate to more profound and universal aspects of reality and existence, which is also increasingly necessary in a globalized internet age.

Thus, a person high in MHC stage but low in depth might be considered in the same effective value meme as someone low in MHC stage but high in depth. Similarly, although Thomas Aquinas might not have known things like Newtonian physics and other intellectual developments that came after him (other aspects of the symbol-stage) while a modern day 14-year-old does, Aquinas had a very high MHC stage and depth and so therefore would have a higher effective value meme than a modern day 14-year-old.

Hanzi gives a table of effective value meme gravity points, which are the effective value memes that people within a given society tend to gravitate towards:

Adapted from table on page 311

So, for instance, a place like the United States has, according to Hanzi, a gravitation point at the Modern effective value meme, and so people living in the U.S. tend to gravitate toward that effective value meme. People with higher (min, max, med) subjective states and greater depth are the ones who tend to surpass the society’s effective value meme gravitation point, while those with lower subjective states and lesser depth tend to lag behind. Meanwhile, according to Hanzi, places like India have their effective value meme gravitation point in the Postfaustian, and so people in that society gravitate there, while people with higher states and more depth surpass it, and so on. But, people like gangster, who tend to value things like strength and honor, have less depth and will lag behind in places like the Faustian effective value meme.

Hanzi also points out that although the effective value meme and the symbol-stage appear to be the same, they are not. He says:

But symbol-stages and effective value memes are not the same. The symbol-stages are the abstract logics inherent to the symbols, whereas effective value meme are descriptions of embodied behaviors. So even people with earlier symbol-stages can behave at higher value memes, if they have high stage, high average stage and great depth. Likewise, you can live in a modern society and still have a pre-modern effective value meme.

He then gives some descriptions of each of the effective value memes. I’m not going to go into too much detail with them here, so this is highly truncated from what Hanzi says:

Archaic: showed up perhaps up to 2 million years ago with Homo erectus; observed nowadays only in very young children and the severely mentally handicapped

Animistic: showed up around 40,000 years ago; observed nowadays in hunter-gatherer cultures and in people with magical thinking (psychics and astrologers and so forth)

Faustian: began in Neolithic age; shows up in places like gangs or warlord societies (Hanzi specifically mentions Afghan tribal societies), so essentially honor cultures; also seen in Wiccan, Pagan, and Voodoo practices, which is why (according to Hanzi) these sorts of ideas appeal to adolescents

Postfaustian: showed up around 2500 years ago; observed in those who adhere to very traditional religions – Hanzi lists “from Amish and Christian fundamentalists to orthodox Jews to Sri Lankan Buddhist zealots to most people in India. ANd, of course, a whole lot of Muslims. But you might also count many of the nationalists and ethnocentric conservatives around Europe as elsewhere as postfaustian…”

Modern: begins during French Enlightenment, though perhaps even as early as the Italian Renaissance; where most people in modern Western civilization reside; Hanzi says they believe things like “…human rights, progress, science, democracy, civil liberties, fair competition, rule of law.” However, they also are anthropocentric in that they “have no problem with mass-killing and torturing animals for the most trivial of human concerns, such as sausage for profit. Nor do you see anything wrong with overexploiting ecosystems, destroying all life on the planet if it translates to gains for humans…”

Postmodern: proto-forms were found as early as the beginnings of the 19th century, but didn’t come into its own until 1968 (Hanzi gives the start as being that specific); concerned with “antiracism, gender equality issues, criticism of norms, general political correctness, environmentalism, multiculturalism, displays of postmaterialist values (at least in a superficial sense that you can brag about eco-vacations and whatnot).” And also “The Postmodern value meme doesn’t believe in ‘progress’, but rather that societies change over time.”

Metamodern: “…is being born as we speak, so we can’t really give a historical example and a current one.” According to Hanzi, those at the Metamodern value meme care about the psychological development and inner dimensions of all people; they, unlike in lower value memes, recognize the value that the other value memes can bring and so do not dismiss them outright, but still seeks to transcend them; furthemore:

By and large, you can spot the Metamodern value meme in people who have successfully internalized all of the postmodern values and thinking, but also add a developmental perspective and begin to value inner growth and authenticity to a much higher degree. They also have a transpersonal perspective, seeing that root causes of social problems are generally to be found in the great fabric of relationships that constitute society and that this is inseparable from the depths of our inner selves. The Metamodern value meme also accepts the importance of elites and hierarchies – something to which the postmoderns are deeply allergic – and it accepts the fact that not all people can be included in all settings: for instance, that not all people can become metamodernists. [bold and italics in original]

So, if we want to oversimplify, it seems that the metamodernist project is in consciousness raising. Metamodernism is synonymous with a political-psychological form of leftist thought, such that by raising a person’s consciousness to the Metamodern value meme, you will become a Green Social Liberal (because if you don’t, then that is a telltale sign that you haven’t yet had your consciousness sufficiently raised).


Hanzi begins by saying that there is no effective value meme above Metamodernism (at least not yet, anyway), i.e., the Spiral Dynamics TURQUOISE. This is because:

  1. There is no decisive critique of Metamodernism that transcends Metamodernism
  2. Symbol-Stage G is only properly understood by MHC Stage 13 or higher, where Stage 13 is only 2% of the population; a successful critique of Metamodernism could only come from someone who is MHC stage 14 or higher who has downloaded Symbol-Stage code H, but such a Symbol-Stage would need to be created by someone who is MHC Stage 15 and who has successfully downloaded Symbol-Stage G, which is far too rare
    • Furthermore, the Depth and State needed to comprehend such a value meme would be prohibitive
    • A person capable of reaching this value meme, Hanzi estimates, would be in the realm of 1 in a hundred thousand.
  3. There is no place in the world where enough such people are gathered as to reach a sufficient critical mass to begin a new effective value meme

Hanzi says, however, that there are enough people at the Metamodern value meme. Let’s examine this by running some back-of-the-envelope numbers:

If the Metamodern value meme is associated with the stage 13 of MHC, which has scant few people (up to 2% of the population) and requires the successful downloading of symbol-stage G, where most people are running on symbol-stage E, then the gravity point for most advanced societies is going to be the Modern. Less advanced societies will be behind that. In order to then think beyond the Modern effective value meme gravitational point, a person must be achieving higher subjective states a sufficient amount of the time and/or have great depth, both of which are also very rare. So, we can think of such people as being a certain proportion of the population P(M) where M = Metamodern value meme. We thus have:

P(M) = P(MHC Stage) x P(Symbol-Stage) x P(Higher States) x P(Great Depth) x P(E)

Where the P(E) is a sort of “error” in that we have to assume that having all of the necessary requirements for being at a Metamodern value meme isn’t sufficient for being there, and so a part of the population who satisfies the necessary requirements will still not be at the Metamodern value meme. If P(E) = 1 that would mean that having the right combination of MHC Stage, Symbol-Stage, Higher States, and Depth is sufficient to bring someone to the Metamodern value meme; if P(E) < 1 then the right combination of those things are not sufficient, but can still be considered necessary conditions.

According to Hanzi, P(MHC Stage = 13) is 0.02 of the population. This is required for a person to successfully download Symbol-Stage G (without using a “flattened” version of it), so that will necessarily be less than 0.02 of the population (not all MHC Stage 13 will have Symbol-Stage G, but all Symbol-Stage G must have MHC Stage 13 (or higher, but we will assume Stage 14 and 15 are vanishingly rare)). Lets say, just for the sake of argument, that it is exactly overlapping with the people at MHC Stage 13 (having MHC Stage 13 is both necessary and sufficient to have Symbol-Stage G), and so we can just say that:

P(MHC Stage) = P(Symbol-Stage) = 0.02

Giving us:

P(M) = 0.02 x P(Higher States) x P(Great Depth) x P(E)

But then how many people of lower MHC Stage are reaching Higher States a sufficient amount of time to move above their station as determined by MHC Stage and Symbol-Stage? Hanzi doesn’t offer any explicit numbers here, except to say that there are likely many people who have never experienced higher states.

We also know that P(Great Depth) and P(Higher States) are not totally independent of each other, since a necessary condition for achieving Great Depth is to have experienced subjective states at either extreme – either Higher States, Lower States, or both. Since we don’t want to include those people who regularly reach Higher States for recreational reasons, let’s assume for the sake of argument that we only care about the people who have reached Higher States and have Great Depth; but, we also have to account for the people who achieve Great Depth by means of experiencing Lower States. We thus have:

P(GD) = P(GD|HS) x P(HS) + P(GD|LS) x P(LS)

Where GD = Great Depth, HS = Higher States, and LS = Lower States

Let’s charitably say that the proportion of people who achieve Great Depth given that they have achieved Higher States is 0.4 and that the proportion of people who achieve Great Depth given that they have achieved Lower States is 0.2 (smaller since such people are likely to end up wallowing in misery or being unable to escape their current situation). Then what is the prior probability of achieving Higher States and Lower States? Again, let’s be charitable and say it is 0.2 of the population for each. We thus have:

P(GD) = 0.4 x 0.2 + 0.2 x 0.2
P(GD) = 0.12

That gives us the following:

P(M) = 0.02 x 0.12 x P(E)
P(M) = 0.0024 x P(E)

We then have to determine what P(E) is, but this is going to be even more subjective than what we’ve already done. For the sake of argument, I’ll say it’s P(E) = 1, i.e., that everyone who satisfies the requirements will attain the Metamodern value meme. This proportion of 0.0024 then, assuming a world population of 7.5 billion, and that all of them are equally likely to achieve the Metamodern value meme, gives us:

7,500,000,000 x 0.0024 = 18,000,000

Or, 18 million people worldwide who are at the Metamodern value meme. But this is perhaps being overly charitable. According to Hanzi, in places like India, everyone is in an effective value meme lower than Metamodern, and that’s at least a billion people just right there. We can assume that many other people in the developing world, or living in poverty in advanced societies like Russia and China, are also prevented from attaining the Metamodern value meme. That’s also not to mention that many of those 7.5 billion are children, old, and the infirm. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that a person must be an adult (but not too old) and must live in an advanced Western civilization. Let’s say that this is about 1 billion people worldwide. We then have:

1,000,000,000 x 0.0024 = 2,400,000

So, 2.4 million people who are at the Metamodern value meme. This sounds like a lot. But we have to take into account the number of people who are within this privileged 1 billion but who are not at the Metamodern value meme, which is 997,600,000 people, all of whom will be using perverted or “flattened” versions of Metamodernism, if not resisting Metamodernism altogether.

Let’s for the sake of argument say that these truly enlightened Metamodernists have an outsized ability to become influencers (not just of the online personality variety, but within society as a whole – politics, science, business, celebrity, art, etc.). Indeed, let’s say that 90% of them will end up in these positions while only 0.5% (half a percent) of the non-Metamoderns can. This gives us:

2,400,000 x 0.9 = 2,160,000 Metamoderns

997,600,000 x 0.005 = 4,988,000 non-Metamoderns

In other words, even at this rate, there are still more than twice as many non-Metamoderns in positions of influence as there are Metamoderns (2.3 times as many given these numbers). But, I’m sure Hanzi might object, it’s not that the sheer number of Metamodernists is what is important, it is also that they hold outsized cultural/social capital and are therefore much better at networking with one another – the whole of this community is greater than the sum of its parts. Meanwhile, the non-Metamodernists are less capable of such networking and do not present a united front. We thus have to add a weighting factor in order to give us what we might call the effective population of the effective value meme (i.e., instead of the real population, it’s the effective population). A sort of Φ from integrated information theory.

If we set Φ = 1 in the case that every individual within the population is acting independently, then if there is effective networking going on we will have Φ > 1. We can thus use Φ as a weight such that:

[Population at EVM] x [Population EVM Influencers] x Φ

And so the above calculations would be:

2,400,000 x 0.9 x Φ

997,600,000 x 0.005 x Φ

But then we need to determine what Φ is. For the non-Metamodern population we might set it at 1 given that we would have individuals working together as cohorts, but those cohorts might be working at cross-purposes and therefore reducing Φ. For the Metamodernists, assuming they will all be unified in their ends and means, we would need Φ > 2.3 which was the factor greater that our non-Metamodernist real population within positions of influence was compared to the Metamodernist real population within positions of influence.

Even if we assume that Metamodernism truly is the way that society ought to go (indeed, even needs to go in order for humanity to sustain itself), the Metamodernists still likely have an uphill battle against opponents and those who will warp the ideology through no fault of their own.

Hanzi puts the number of people at the Metamodern value meme at less than a tenth of a percent, or <0.01% (although Sweden he says is probably closer to somewhere around less than half a percent, or <0.5%), which is even more pessimistic than my estimate of 0.24% from above.

My Argument: Transhumanism

If we go back to the computer analogy, where MHC Stage is hardware and Symbol-Stage is software, we might modify it and say that MHC Stage is the processor and RAM and State + Depth is the graphics card. What happens if the Moore’s Law of cognition and wisdom has reached a point of prohibitively diminished returns? In other words, getting enough people to the Metamodern value meme before some kind of environmental, economic, and/or political cataclysm prevents ascension to the Listening Society? We could think of this as a sort of psychological great filter: all intelligent civilizations in the universe reach a point where their psychological development is too slow to keep up with the growing needs of solving their respective hyperobjects.

This would be a result, perhaps, of the fact that MHC Stage 13 and above is so rare on account of the genetic predisposition being so low in the population. Not just the genetic predisposition toward developing a brain capable of such complex thoughts, but also a genetic predisposition toward taking the sorts of actions required to achieve such a high MHC Stage. In other words, doing the kind of work needed to reach MHC Stage 13 is so difficult that even a large portion of the people genetically capable of achieving MHC Stage 13 will not be predisposed to doing all that is necessary to get there.

A possible solution to this might be so-called designer babies. Using techniques like CRISPR on germline cells, humans with a genetic predisposition for reaching MHC Stage 13 and higher, and toward doing the work necessary to achieve this potential, it might be possible to produce a critical mass of human intelligence capable of ushering in Hanzi’s Listening Society (still assuming such a goal is desirable).

Additionally, artificial general intelligences that are MHC Stage 13 and higher (maybe even much higher) might be an approach to achieving this, perhaps ones that we lower humans could use as oracles (which we already do to some extent using algorithms, but I’m picturing an artificial general intelligence).

Indeed, if a moral imperative is to psychologically develop people to as high of an effective value meme as possible, then making more people have the potential to reach the highest effective value memes is also a moral imperative. In other words, it is morally incumbent on us to produce the so-called designer babies and eventually the artificial general intelligences that can even vastly surpass us modern day non-augmented human beings.